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Title: The Joinville Tunnel
Author: Fred M. White
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Language: English
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The Joinville Tunnel

by

Fred M. White

First published in The Cornhill Magazine, Nov 1898
This e-book edition: Project Gutenberg Australia, 2014



§ I

THE SERGEANT was obdurate. He had his orders, which were as Holy Writ in his eyes. They were cold grey eyes in a face hammered hard on the anvil of officialism. There were more important things than Red Cross stores.

"Your stores cannot proceed by this train, Major," said the Bavarian.

The whole of the cases consigned to Versailles lay piled up on one another on the narrow platform of St. Quentin station. It was all the more annoying because the horses and wagons had been sent on by Eustace to a point some thirty miles further along the line to Paris, and he had been promised a fair conveyance to Joinville by the general commanding the Prussian forces in the district.

But General Deganfeld was not available at present. It was many miles over the frozen country to his base. A strong French force under General de la Jonge had pushed forward from Arras, and their advent was keeping Deganfeld's hands full. There were rumours that a smaller force of Frenchmen had forced the lines behind Joinville, and had thus obtained command of the railway line beyond the famous tunnel.

But of this the Bavarian sergeant professed to know nothing. A train load of provisions strongly guarded had left for Joinville two hours ago. The sergeant was inclined to flout the idea that this same had fallen into the hands of the enemy.

Another train would pass through shortly. This Eustace and Huddlestone had hoped to make use of. They could only sit on their cases now and bemoan their ill fortune. Scattered over the good-sheds beyond the station, a company of Bavarian Infantry held the line. If there were officers, they did not show themselves.

"Nothing of the Chesterfield about these fellows," Huddlestone grumbled. "What on earth shall we do now?"

Eustace was at a loss for a reply. Sad as it may seem, the Red Cross carried suspicion in its train. Doubtless the sacred cause had been abused by spies and others; indeed, the history of the war testifies to the fact. There was the ghost of a grin on the sergeant's face as he clanked away. Eustace looked along the blackness of the Orloy woods rising to the crest of the hill under which the great tunnel of Joinville bored its way.

"Hang me if I know," he said. "We must leave the stores here and get them to pass us on to Joinville. Then we can send the wagons back—"

Something came like the hum of a home-flying bee between the two men, and thudded into a wooden sentry box behind them. Along the dark belt of the bending woods a score of smoke jets puffed. Crack, crack, came the bullets.

Then a bugle rang out, and from the goods-sheds the Bavarians poured forth like angry grey wasps. Hardly had they formed into line before a cloud of Francs-tireurs broke from under cover and dashed down upon the station. They were as two to one to the Germans.

A raking volley barely served to check their headlong progress. They shot through the thin Bavarian line as if it had been so much brown paper. Then, as the Francs-tireurs came hurling down on the left flank of the doomed Bavarians, Eustace saw the big sergeant borne down and his skull shattered by the sweeping glance of a sword. Then the Bavarians broke like sheen, and ran for the upper spur of the woods, pursued by the victorious horse men.

It was a mere affair of minutes. The affray was barely over before a heavy train came puffing into the station. In less time than it takes to tell, every German aboard, to the number of two score, were prisoners.

"That was well done." said a gay voice as the French cavalry officer in command strode up. "Deganfeld has had the feather drawn over his eye this time. What have we here?"

The speaker saluted Eustace and his comrade politely. Huddlestone explained.

"Surely you are Captain Armand?" he concluded. "I recollect meeting you after the fall of Metz."

"Ah, yes. Pardon that I did not recognise Captain Huddlestone. I owe you one good turn, which fortune has enabled me to return. Your stores shall go on to Joinville, and I will accompany them. Indeed, I have strong reasons for getting to Joinville myself. I may say that we only hold the line on sufferance. Deganfeld is closer up than those Bavarians imagine. There are four trains at Martay yonder bringing up supports for the German force beyond Joinville, and the first of these trains may follow on at any moment. So you see I am really between the devil and the deep sea. Still, if I can only get to Joinville—"

"Would it not be better to lose no further time?" Eustace suggested. "We have the train here all ready to proceed. With the assistance of your men we could get our stores aboard in a few minutes."

Armand agreed. Anxious and worried as he was, nothing appeared to deprive him of his gay manner. It was more than possible that on emerging from the far side of Joinville tunnel he would find himself and his company of infantry prisoners. What had happened beyond the hills nobody knew. And Armand had his own urgent reasons for a flying visit there.

Acting upon the instructions of their captain, the troop of cavalry deployed again under the cover of the wood. By this time the stores were aboard the train, together with the handful of infantry that Armand had at his command. Eustace felt his spirits rising.

"What a slice of luck for us," he said, gleefully. "Personally, it doesn't matter a scrap to us what happens when we are on the other side of the tunnel. Once there, it is no far cry to our wagons."

"Wish we were out of it all the same," Huddlestone muttered. "Tunnels in war time are best avoided. And there are four miles of this one."

Armand swaggered up gaily. The adventure had found him in spirits.

"May I ask what your object is?" said Eustace.

"Who knows?" responded the volatile captain. "Joinville is my destination. Mayhap we shall steam into the hands of the Germans. If you had been waiting, waiting as I have been—driven from pillar to post—you would understand my thirst for action."

"Meanwhile a train load of German troops may be up to us at any moment," said Huddlestone. "This is a mere coup de maine of yours."

Armand responded serenely that such was the fact. Even as he spoke the shrill note of a distant whistle cleft the frosty air. The railway was a winding one, and as the crow flies the approaching train was not distant more than a mile—twice that distance as the track went. A thin jet of steam trailed along the valley.

"We must go on," Armand cried. "There are troops coming, I hear. All aboard there. We shall have a race for it yet. Laden down as we are, the other train will have the pull of us."

A moment later, and the engine was jolting forward. Armand had spoken truly. His little strategy could not remain successful for long, added to which his knowledge told him that the approaching train was laden with German troops. But it was a race between a passenger and a goods train. Doubtless by this time one of the Bavarian fugitives had explained matters.

Full speed ahead was the order of the day. Despite his gay air and careless smile, Armand gazed from time to time behind him. There were the most urgent reasons why he should reach Joinville without delay.

"They are gaining on us," he cried.

The Englishmen responded nothing. The truth was painfully apparent. And the jolt and rattle of the heavy goods trucks rendered conversation a difficulty. So far as Eustace and his colleagues were concerned, the ultimate issue mattered little, as long as they eventually cleared the tunnel.

But this was anything but a certainty. A mile or more of line level as a billiard table and straight as a gunbarrel lay before them, ending in the small circular bore that meant the entrance to the tunnel. And by the time Armand and his party were half way to this, he could see behind them the buffers of the approaching engine.

"A stern chase is a long chase,'" said Eustace.

Armand smiled grimly. Gone was his butterfly manner; no longer did he cherish his moustache. There were enough soldiers on the approaching train to cut his little force to pieces ten times over.

"They will be up to us before we are through," said Huddlestone.

"You are fond of sport," Armand cut in swiftly. "You bet a little, of course—all Englishmen do. Then I will bet you what you call six to four if that yonder engine never catches us at all."

"You can't prevent it," said Eustace.

By way of reply Armand scrambled to the front of the truck where the three were standing. He gave a quick, crisp command to the engine driver, and the train immediately commenced to slacken speed. When finally it came to a standstill, its whole length was secreted in the blackness of the tunnel, like a worm underground.

"Are you mad?" Eustace cried. "Man alive, in three minutes that other train will be on to us. To destroy them is very well, but why allow us to perish?"

"Enough," Armand responded curtly, "I know my business. You will see what you shall see. Uncouple the last three trucks there."

The situation looked desperate enough for anything. There was any odds on a fight between the two trains, with the balance faintly in favour of the Germans. To bring this matter to an issue in the black suffocation of a tunnel was horrible.

The train stood fast inside the grim, smoky tunnel. Already, some eight hundred yards away, the pursuing engine forged steadily onward. Eustace would have interfered had he dared. In a wondering sort of way he watched a handful of sappers uncoupling the last three trucks, he felt the jolt and jerk as the locomotive slowly moved on, and then he saw a pair of rails with their sleepers wrenched away, leaving an ugly hole in the track.

"Now do you understand?" Armand whispered, fiercely.

Eustace held his breath in the excitement of the moment. He could distinctly hear the thud, thud of the coming train. Then its whistle shrieked hideously, there was a resounding crash as the two solid masses met, and in less time than it takes to tell the mouth of the tunnel was packed, jammed with hundreds of tons of wood and steel. There was a scream of escaping steam, the thud of an explosion, a few yells and groans, and all was still. Armand had left behind him a rampart welded into a solid mass like liquid iron is forged under a hammer. Many an hour would necessarily elapse before the way would be cleared again.

"This is horrible!" Huddlestone cried.

"It may not be war, perhaps," Armand said coolly; "but you will admit that this is no time for the exchange of social amenities. But for my little stratagem you would have been a long time getting your stores to Joinville."

The train was jolting and pounding forward again. For some minutes nobody spoke. The Englishmen were peering somewhat anxiously ahead. Away down the line Eustace could see two lights travelling.

"Surely there is something on the track," he cried. "The driver—"

But the driver was already aware of the fact. Armand shortly demanded of him what was wrong.

"A train backing along the tunnel," came the startling reply, "and on the same line of rails as ourselves. Mon Dieu, it—"

The rest of the speech was drowned in the shrill whistle of the engine.

§ II

FOR a brief space something like consternation reigned supreme. The peculiar horror of the situation struck home with full force. Armand had been hoist with his own petard: he had fallen headlong into the trap he had laid for another.

"I don't understand it at all," he muttered.

"I do," said Huddlestone grimly. "Less than an hour before you made your successful raid just now, a German train passed through. Without doubt she has been headed off by a force of your men, and has risked everything, to the extent of running back on her tracks, for assistance."

Armand nodded moodily. The explanation seemed reasonable; indeed it was the only one possible under the circumstances.

"We shall have to fight her," said the Frenchman, "since retreat is out of the question. There are troops aboard, of course?"

"Not more than a score," Huddlestone replied. "Their goods are mainly camp stores for the garrison occupying Fort Bazan."

"Ah! Then our task is lighter than I anticipated," said Armand.

All this was a mere matter of moments. Already the lights on the approaching engine were growing more steady, plain proof of the fact that the other train was coming to a standstill. When, finally, the two trains pulled up, not more than five yards separated them.

"Back there," a guttural German voice smote out into the smoky darkness. "You cannot get through. A force of French infantry with two guns holds the valley below Joinville."

"That is good hearing, indeed," Armand cried in the same language. "Learn that we too are French, and that we have not the same objection to proceeding. You oblige us by showing the way."

The German officer in charge of the other train wasted no time in idle questions. He knew enough of the game of war to be surprised at nothing. A response came in the shape of a score of bullets fired haphazard in the thick darkness. Nothing loth, the French replied. For some minutes the desultory and useless war of small arms continued. Ever and anon a bullet would thud into a case or the side of a truck—it would tinkle against the masonry of the tunnel. But, on the whole, the fusilade was absolutely futile.

Still, the situation was thrilling enough in all conscience. To retreat was out of the question; to proceed, for the present at any rate, was equally impossible. Add to the inky darkness of the tunnel, its horror solely illuminated by the sudden flash of the rifles, and an atmosphere of burnt paper and smoke that tasted acrid on the tongue, and stung the eyes and nose like needles.

Standing behind the shelter of a big packing case, Eustace and Huddlestone took no part in the affray. What the end of this alarming adventure would be it was impossible to say. And as the moments passed the atmosphere grew thick and oppressive. Eustace was conscious of an unusual moisture on his forehead.

"This is stifling," he said. "I can hardly breathe."

"Same here," gasped Huddlestone. "My nose is dripping with blood."

Gradually the firing slackened and died sullenly away. Perhaps the utter uselessness of it appealed to both sets of combatants simultaneously. Doubtless they, too, were fearsome of the deadly poisonous atmosphere. More or less, the meaning of this was a mystery. The tunnel contained two lines of rails, the roof was fairly high, and generally a strong current of air passed through.

But not now. The seal of wood and iron brought about by Armand's ingenuity at the far end of the tunnel had prevented the free ingress of pure air, and the dense volumes of acrid smoke had done the rest.

Armand fairly sobbed and struggled for his breath. He fought his way over to the cab of the engine, and in a hoarse whisper asked for a piece of cotton waste. This he proceeded to soak in the oil from the stoker's can. Then he placed the mass upon the boiler and applied a light.

A flaring yellow flame flashed out. Within its ring of radiance could be seen the engines and leading trucks of both trains. On the fore part of either the troops had gathered. Numerically, the proportion was greatly on the side of the French.

"Rush them," Armand cried, "rush them whilst the flare lasts."

Like rats, the nimble little Gauls leapt on the metals. A few shots at short range were exchanged, in the midst of which the yellow light suddenly died away. By the time Armand had replenished it, his men were cheering hoarsely in possession of the German train. A dead body or two lay on the track; from a truck here and there came the gurgle and groan of the wounded.

"This is worse than murder," said the stripling officer in charge of the German train. "There is reason in all things, Captain. Pray command me. Circumstances place me entirely at your service."

"You will recollect that you brought this entirely upon yourself," Armand replied dryly. "Meanwhile, we may pay too highly for the time wasted in the interchange of politeness. We shall be asphyxiated. Pray precede us, so that we may get out of this without delay."

No time was lost in getting under way again. The mere motions of the trains fanned up a slight breeze, which, languid as it was, came sweetly and soothingly to breasts literally bursting for the want of it. Armand's spirits rose, a soft whistle escaped his lips.

"Eh, bien," he said, "but this is something to remember, something to tell one's friends in after life and—"

"Be received with polite incredulity," said Huddlestone. "This is literally the hottest place I have ever been in. The air is better, but not much less stifling than it was before. Captain, I trust your friends have not been trying on a little amateur sapping of their own at the other end of this confounded tunnel."

The melodious lilt faded suddenly from Armand's lips. "I don't quite understand you," he said.

"Don't you," said Huddlestone. "Supposing your friends towards Joinville are not particularly strong in numbers. They appear to be masters of the situation for the time being, but their position would be immensely strengthened by possession of the railway. And how would they proceed to make sure of the railway? Why, by blowing up the mouth of the tunnel directly they had driven back the train."

"Then you mean to suggest—?"

"That the thing is un fait accompli. I feel certain that what I say is correct, and that we are literally sealed up here like sardines in a tin. Otherwise, the atmosphere would not be so insufferably close. You see the gravity of the situation?"

Armand shrugged his shoulders.

"It is not lost upon me," he said. "Fortunately, the suspense will not be unduly prolonged. We shall soon know."

Both trains were moving slowly on. Calculating by moments, the cars should not have been remote from the exit over against Joinville. And yet, hanging anxiously over the side, the two Englishmen could discern nothing beyond the purple, shot darkness.

There was no circular focus of light, no welcome rays penetrating the exit from the tunnel. Either some calamity had happened, or they were the victims of a cruel misfortune.

"The exit is assuredly blocked up," Eustace muttered.

Armand's reply was unheard. The pilot train, forging slowly ahead, bumped and clattered, the trucks came thudding together along its entire length, and then suddenly came to a standstill.

"For heaven's sake shut off steam there, or you will be into us," came a harsh voice from the pioneers. "There is something on the line."

The second train also came to its brakes. Armand hastened to the scene of the trouble. The young German in charge of the other transport was already examining his surroundings with the aid of a lantern.

"What has happened?" Armand asked, anxiously.

"The whole line is strewn with masonry," was the reply. "Look for yourself, and see if it is not so, Monsieur le Capitaine."

Armand took the lantern which the other proffered, and flashed its sickly yellow rays upwards. Not only was the line strewn with masses of rock and earth and twisted brickwork, but the serried mass rose upward till roof and floor came together. Huddlestone had guessed it. Both exits from the tunnel had been destroyed.

"A most amazing thing," Armand cried. "A marvellous coincidence."

The young German smiled somewhat grimly.

"I guessed this," he said, "though I had no need to tell you. It becomes necessary to go back in the direction of Orloy."

"Into the hands of your countrymen, who have doubtless regained the lost ground there," Armand said, dryly. "My friend, to prevent accidents I contrived to seal up the entrance of this tunnel after my train entered."

"Then we are caught like rats in a pipe."

"So it seems. But can you inform me how my brilliant scheme came to be so speedily pirated as this?"

"That is merely conjecture," the youthful German replied. "I only know that my train was headed back by troops two miles this side of Joinville. They were in force, and I feared derailment. For the time, at any rate, the valley seemed to have fallen into your hands. The enemy bore me back into the tunnel, and that is all I know. The position is anything but a pleasing one."

Armand agreed sullenly. He understood perfectly what had happened. A body of troops had made a dash for Joinville, and they had destroyed a portion of the tunnel, with a view of checking any advance on the part of General Deganfeld. By an amazing chance both exits had gone simultaneously.

Apparently there was nothing to be done but sit down and endure it. Sooner or later the Bavarian advance from Marlay must result in communications being opened up again. But Deganfeld was by no means over strong, and a large French force—the force Armand was so anxious to touch—hovered menacingly in the country about Joinville.

Under these circumstances, many days might elapse before the tunnel was cleared. That Deganfeld would make desperate efforts to do so was certain. That the French would do their best to prevent him was inevitable. To force the obstacle from within, aided by a mere handful of men without tools was practically impossible.

"And we are without stores," said Armand. "We might hold out for a couple of days. Major, your cases are—"

"Not mine," Eustace said, hurriedly. "Besides, we cannot get much nourishment out of surgical appliances. In any case we shall perish miserably ere long for want of air. The atmosphere is insufferable."

Eustace spoke truly. The air was hot and heavy, a sense of languor and fatigue lay upon every man there. As yet, they hardly realised the full extent of the danger. Unless relief came speedily, a horrible death lay before them. The black darkness was in itself a terror.

"Something must be done," Armand said, hoarsely. "Come, is there not one of you that can suggest anything?"

The young German officer touched Armand's elbow.

"There is one desperate chance," he said. "If you follow me, I will show you the way."

"Lead on," said Armand. "Nothing can be more desperate than this."

§ III

LANTERN in hand, the German plunged forward. He was followed by Armand, together with the Englishmen. No word was spoken on either side, the journey being undertaken in grim silence. At some distance from the trains and the troops the air was a little less vitiated, and oppressed lungs drew breath more freely. At the end of a mile the guide paused.

"Do you notice anything?" he asked.

They all had, almost at the same moment. They noticed a purer, cooler air, like champagne to their jaded senses.

"And there seems to be an absolute draught," said Huddlestone.

"Hardly that," said the German. "It has gone again. Half a dozen men might manage to exist here for a time, but no more."

"I can't understand whence comes the air," said Armand.

"It seems to me that we Germans know your country better than you know it yourselves," said the other, with a dryness that brought the blood to Armand's cheek. "But that is by the way. As a matter of fact, we are exactly under the ventilating shaft of the tunnel. It passes through the hill, rising to a round tower of stone beyond—a capital landmark."

"You are right," Armand cried, eagerly. "I remember now."

"Very good, Captain. I saw that we had one desperate chance, and that is a fact. It may be just possible for us to climb up the shaft and seek assistance. There is no other way."

Armand was eager for the attempt, and the Englishmen were nothing loth to follow. The German proceeded, lantern in hand.

"How did you learn this?" Armand asked.

"We left nothing to chance," was the reply. "Do you suppose an important detail like this would be overlooked?"

"Never mind that," Armand growled. "How do you propose to ascend?"

By way of reply, the German flashed his lantern along the slimy walls of the tunnel. Presently he found what he wanted—a square wooden trap, which he proceeded to pull away from the wall. This done, a hole barely large enough for a man to squeeze into was disclosed.

"More charming than it seems," the German explained. "The semi-circular pipe leads on to the roof of the tunnel. There is an iron grating above us, if you will take the trouble to look."

Sure enough, as the Lantern's rays flashed on the roof, a rusty, sooty grating came in the line of the light. Like a cat, the German wriggled himself into the hole, pushing his lantern before him, the others following.

It was a dusty, dingy, horrible, choky business, resulting in hands and faces being smothered in soot and cinders, but it was accomplished at last. When, finally, the four adventurers stood on the grating, they could see the brilliant shield of the blue sky far above them as a cerulean circle clear cut by the funnel, and they could breathe again.

The pure frosty air ran like quicksilver along Armand's veins. "It is good to live, after all," he cried. "Still, there is much to be done. Herr Lieutenant, how do you propose to reach the summit?"

"Nothing easier," said the other. "The way is provided, sir." A flight of iron ladders led upwards. It was a long and tedious business, for the shaft was many hundreds of feet through the heart of the hill, and the ladders were of iron and absolutely perpendicular.

The intense cold struck, even down there. Each of the adventurers could feel the chill grip of the metal as it struck through their gloves. As they toiled up, foot by foot, the pace gradually slackened. It was fortunate, perhaps, that darkness reigned supreme, and thus veiled the real danger of the undertaking.

"I'm glad I can't see anything," Huddlestone panted. "Looking down from a height always makes me confoundedly giddy. And we must be up—"

"Don't think of it," Eustace replied. "I'm trying not to, and I never was in such a blue funk in all my life. Sebastopol was nothing to this."

All things come to an end, and the weary climb was over at last. When the four reached the top of the shaft a brief terror awaited them. Over the entire surface a network of iron completed the semblance of a cage.

"Good heavens!" Huddlestone groaned. "Have we come all this way to be baffled like this? How maddening!"

Armand swore volubly. Then annoyance took the place of anger, as the German reached up and lifted the centre of the grill. The latter seemed to know perfectly well that the grill possessed a swinging doorway.

"It is the way we have beaten you all along," he said. "We know everything, you know nothing—except how to fight."

Armand turned away bitterly mortified. The truth stung like a whiplash. Ere he could think of a suitable reply, the boom of a gun, followed by the quick rattle of musketry fire, smote on the air. Evidently, sharp work was in progress down in the valley towards Joinville.

A risky jump of some fifteen feet, on to snow frozen as hard as granite, made a fitting termination to the hazardous side of the adventure. The volatile Armand burst out laughing as he surveyed his companions.

"Did one ever see four such disreputable scarecrows?" he cried. "Still, we can afford to smile at our misfortunes now. Forward, mes amis."

A brisk run of some twenty minutes brought the quartette on the scene of action. A miniature pitched battle between a Prussian regiment, hurried up by General Deganfeld and a cloud of Francs-tireurs was in full blast. Armand ran forward to an eminence, and waved aloft his handkerchief, which he had tied to his sword. The German lieutenant followed his example.

At the unexpected spectacle of a French and Prussian officer standing amicably side by sire, and waving miniature flags of truce, the firing ceased. Then, by mutual consent, Armand and the German respectively returned to their own lines. A few minutes later, and a hurried conference between the leaders of both forces had taken place.

The scene which followed was not the least strange incident of that marvellous campaign. Amongst the wreckage at the mouth of the tunnel, hundreds of French and German troops worked side by side. From either set of rails their respective officers watched them in silence. Up the slopes the arms were piled.

At the end of two hours the way was practically clear. A rousing cheer went up as the last block of brickwork was rolled aside, and then there staggered from the tunnel four score of men, grim and pallid, and gasping in the pure air of the afternoon. There was nothing for it now but to bring out the trains, which was done accordingly.

"Whom do they belong to?" asked the German leader.

"The problem is not yet solved, Colonel," responded the French commander. "Let them form part of the stake we were playing for when we were so strangely interrupted two hours ago."

The German saluted grimly. He desired nothing better. Within two minutes of this polite interchange of courtesies, the roar of conflict had recommenced. From a snug vantage ground, Eustace and Huddlestone watched the progress of the fray. They saw the tide of victory ebb and flow, they saw the Germans gradually beaten back and retire sullenly to the cover of the woods. Then, a little time later, Armand came up with a gay smile upon his face.

"Ah," he cried, "we have to be grateful for small mercies in these dark days. Your sympathy was with us, I am sure."

"You," said Eustace. "I was thinking of my stores, you know."

"Quite so. Then you are fortunate, for these two trains are going right through to Joinville at once. We are well out of the adventure, my friends."

And Eustace heartily concurred.


THE END

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